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Hidden in plain sight

Our institutions have lost the credibility to project the truth.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
September 25, 2013 5:46:12 am

Our institutions have lost the credibility to project the truth.

While we debate such serious matters as the battle for the soul of India,the transformation of Indian politics,the possibilities of growth,the real political battle of the moment remains hidden in plain sight. The ponderous debates over the big issues cannot throw a cloak over the really ugly battle: India’s elites are now like a crazed pack of wolves,completely out of control to the point that they are devouring each other in an unprecedented frenzy,taking down every institution with them. The real crisis is not order versus disorder,communalism versus secularism,growth versus stagnation. The real crisis is this: what happens to a society when everyone tears into each other without restraint? It is general versus general,chief justice versus chief justice,economist versus economist,media against media,bureaucrat against bureaucrat and all professions against each other. The real battle is among an old elite now in the last throes of self-destruction,where even minimal self-awareness is too much to expect. Much of this fight is a frenzy of rhetorical excess. But alas,most of it will have deadly consequences on the ground.

The latest controversy regarding former army chief General V.K. Singh is an expression of this crisis. Fairness requires that there be no rush to prejudgement. Everyone will take an injured recourse to the truth. But you know an elite has completely lost it when it does not understand one plain fact about truth and power. Truth is not about the facts. It depends on the credibility of the regimes that produce it. None of our truth producing regimes has any credibility left. From the judiciary to the media,the government to the opposition,no institution has the credibility to be able to project the truth,the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But whatever the truth,think of the harm already done. It will take years for the army to recover its credibility. Any large institution will have some degree of factional politics. But it has now reached proportions that are damaging the very credibility of the institution. The government had little credibility to begin with. It has compounded this by targeting opponents in such a way that the odour of politicisation hangs over everything. The entire decision-making structure of the defence ministry is culpable in bringing things to such a pass. But its credibility is so destroyed that even when it takes the correct action in future,you will not be able to trust whether it took it for the right motives.

But the fact that this battle had to be fought in public in this way has put so many other things at stake. In one stroke,the disclosures and V.K. Singh’s response have destroyed the credibility of the democratic process in Kashmir. You do not have to be very smart to recognise that in an atmosphere as conspiratorially thick as Kashmir’s,these disclosures are a bombshell,one that may cost both lives and the Indian Union. But there is also another institutional issue at stake. What recourse do people have to defend themselves when the internal due processes of the state are so flawed that there are no proper hearings; where there is no clarity on which matter is actually closed and which is in abeyance? The next time an Indian opens her mouth about the rule of law and due process,just remind her that China just handled even so politicised a trial as that of Bo Xilai with more tact and maturity. Much of what V.K. Singh said about the army’s relationship with NGOs and governments in J&K,in an interview to Times Now,betrayed,at the very least,a serious lack of judgement and a general lack of competence. But who is going to decide whether this is injured innocence driven to the wall,or maliciousness now wearing the mantle of upholding national policy?

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But in miniature,this story is being repeated in every branch of government,wide sections of the media and civil society,and possibly even in business. On full display is an extraordinary lack of self-awareness. The real battle is that India’s plutocracy is overreaching: it is destroying from within the veils that granted it a modicum of legitimacy. It will not take a political scientist but a novelist of extraordinary psychological subtlety to explain how a ruling class came to internalise a shrill,self-destructive culture,where short-term interest triumphs over all norms,where personal goals override all processes,where a sense of entitlement overcomes judgement,where petty rivalries put all national interest at risk,and prejudgements and inchoate ambitions disable all reason and reasonableness. This is an elite so much in its own cocoon that it has lost sight of all consequences. Political history tells us that an order is about to collapse when the following is true of its elites: conspiracy supplants facts,ridicule replaces authority,jokes are the only mode of analysis that captures deep truths,an air of absurdity hangs over the liturgy of the state,generals are squabbling and the godmen are in the net of sex or wealth. We are getting pretty close to that point.

Many of these exposures could have produced a real cleansing had they been allied to progressive political change. This could have been part of the great manthan where all the old poison comes out. Initially,there was enthusiasm for this muck-raking because it was a sign that the system was being cleaned up. But mostly,it ended up producing cynicism and an environment of low trust. The sunlight is not proving to be much of a disinfectant. Rather,it is blinding us so that we often cannot see the truth even when it is in front of us.

It is often feared that India,impatient with the governance deficit,will veer towards authoritarianism. But perhaps we are misreading this yearning. Our longing for a strong leader may not be so much an anti-democratic longing,the need for dictatorship to keep the masses at bay. The masses will do just fine. Rather,it is a distorted form of self-recognition of an elite that it is no longer capable of self-mastery and restraint. It is the ruling classes yearning for a stout stick. It is the rulers hoping that someone from the inside disciplines them,before the bonfire of credibility turns into a real fire of demagoguery.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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First published on: 25-09-2013 at 05:46:12 am
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